Set dialogues have been vital tools for instruction for millennia. From wisdom dialogues in ancient Egyptian to Alfric’s Colloquies in medieval Latin, scripted dialogues constitute a practical literary form for condensing and presenting essential information in use as well as the ideal relationship between teacher and disciple.
Today, we are probably most familiar with the language-learning dialogues that we had to learn in school or on our own from self-study resources, such as Teach Yourself French, or Colloquial Chinese. Like the dialogue between Naciketas and Death in the Katha Upanishad, the content of these dialogues serves the primary purpose of educating the listener or reader – appearing as a realistic conversation is a secondary consideration.
Despite the advantages and traditional appeal of presenting instruction as a conversation, the dialogic form has many drawbacks, particularly if the student does not understand how to use the set expressions.
Professionally, I develop language-training programs. While memorizing dialogues can be a good starting point, such practices often lead to frustration and a rigid application of language. In English, there are dozens of ways of greeting someone and asking how they are doing. If the dialogue you have learned only contains one or two of these expressions, you will be thrown off and frustrated when you go out into the real world and encounter all of the other ways of greeting that exist in English. Set dialogues can also lead students to try and fit a conversation into one of the prepackaged scenarios they have already learned. This often leads students to answer questions incorrectly with the wrong set expression.
A dialogue is meant to present practical application of knowledge in a condensed and manageable form. It is not designed to provide students with the necessary variation required to use that knowledge in all of the complex combinations of real life.
Sitting in one of my mother’s recent classes, I was struck by the need for fluency in the language of spiritual practice. She asked several questions to the class, and students started responding with random catchphrases and expressions they had heard before. It felt like a language class in which the teacher suddenly broke script, went outside the set dialogues, and actually just started conversing with the students in the target language. Everyone stumbled, panicked, and started trying to fit the conversation into a prepackaged mold.
In many ways, spiritual practice is its own language; or at least contains its own language. When you first get started, you learn set expressions, and pick up basic phrases and constructions. If you think that the sentences presented in the sutras are all you need to know, then you will be like the language learner who only memorizes a few dialogues. You will not understand the underlying grammatical patterns within those dialogues, and you will not go further to develop a true fluency.
A sutra is the most condensed form of knowledge. It needs to be unpacked, and a student should be able to explain it in a dozen different ways – just as anyone learning English should learn a dozen different greetings.
Set forms of knowledge can be a useful starting point, but students must learn to go beyond the set form itself, digging into the underlying meaning and structures. They need to be able to have the same type of conversation or present the same information in many different ways. Just acquiring fixed knowledge is a first level practice. This needs to be taken further into a second level practice through understanding all of the deeper concepts – the grammar of spiritual practice.
Only once someone has developed a second level, grammatical understanding of practice will they be able to use the content of those phrases and expressions for third level practice. This in turn will allow a student to develop true fluency. In terms of language, I call this a plastic ability. It means that a speaker of the language is able to create new variations out of their own understanding, rather than just regurgitating expressions they have learned before. Only through third level practice can you actually develop fluency in the language of spiritual practice. Only then will you have the ability to describe concepts completely from your own experience, rather than from a prescribed framework.
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